6 June 2023

Risks to business, not risks to reproductive rights, are at the heart of the Calvary tussle

| Genevieve Jacobs
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minister for health Rachel Stephen-Smith

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith says the Calvary takeover is necessary to meet the Territory’s healthcare needs. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

The waters are getting very muddy indeed as the ACT Government pushes ahead with its plans to compulsorily acquire Calvary Public Hospital at Bruce.

This week, legislation to acquire the hospital passed in the Legislative Assembly, unscrutinised by committee process, and Calvary Health announced it will take legal action over the termination of its 76-year lease arrangements.

The Catholic Church has decried the “existential” threat to faith-based care providers, and members of the Australian Christian Lobby have been protesting loudly at the Assembly, painting the takeover as a threat to religious freedom in the Territory.

But the real risk here is sovereign. This dispute is all about business, not religion.

It’s an easy error to make, especially if you look at the timing of the announcement, coupled with the Assembly’s recent standing committee inquiry into the Territory’s abortion and reproductive choices

READ ALSO Compulsory takeover of Calvary Public Hospital Bruce passed through Assembly

The committee’s report, released in April, labelled Calvary’s “overriding religious ethos” as “problematic”, citing a submission to the inquiry from a woman who had claimed she had been denied a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure at the hospital after suffering an incomplete miscarriage.

She’d told the inquiry that because the procedure could be used for abortions, Calvary Public Hospital had “refused” to perform it.

Region has made multiple requests to committee chair MLA Johnathan Davies to clarify whether the woman gave direct evidence to the committee of being turned away from the hospital or simply believed she could not access care.

We’ve been told that as chair, Mr Davies cannot release that information and requests must be made to the inquiry’s secretary, Dr Adele Chenoweth.

A D&C is a common medical procedure that can be required for many reasons and is sometimes an emergency. Calvary has repeatedly said it would not inquire whether a woman had undergone a termination before offering her treatment and has no record of this happening.

READ ALSO Legal action ‘only response left’ as ACT Government’s takeover of Calvary Public Hospital looms

Calvary does not perform abortions – but neither do any of the Territory’s other hospitals, with rare medically indicated exceptions that are usually tragic in nature.

Abortion in the ACT takes place safely and with robust protections at the MSI clinic in Moore St, where the Territory government has made commendable efforts to protect women from being harassed by protestors so they can access legal healthcare. The abortion pill is provided by some GPs.

The ACT is the first and only jurisdiction in Australia where abortion is now available at no cost, protecting the rights of vulnerable women to have control over their own bodies and their reproductive future.

It’s not a perfect situation by any means. There should be more than one abortion clinic in the ACT, and there are reports of women being forced to seek surgical abortions or even access to the abortion pill in Queanbeyan.

But that is an issue for the Minister and ACT Health to address, along with many other ongoing problems.

So why is the Calvary takeover constantly linked to reproductive issues and religious rights?

Could it be because this is an easier strategy to run on all sides of the debate? Allowing people to range themselves on the side of reproductive freedom or religious freedom is emotional, values-laden stuff with plenty of touchpoints from recent, divisive national debates.

It fires up everyone, from passionate advocates for women’s rights to ardent religious campaigners. But neither religious freedom nor abortion access are under threat in the ACT.

The central issue is the ACT Government’s entitlement to end a longstanding commercial arrangement with a private provider who had not breached contract conditions.

This will be the substance of the legal challenge. This is what will be decided in the courts, with its implications for business in the ACT and access to healthcare for a rapidly growing population.

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Abortion is a health right available to all women Martin Keast! These rights have been hard-fought by proponents for reform and well canvassed in the parliament and media.
ACT taxpayers fund Calvary Hospital. Calvary is owned by the Catholic church and operated by the Little Company of Mary Health Care. Key opponents to health care reform and the rights of women to access health and contraception services are hospitals like Calvary. The hospital continues to refuse or offer health care assistance and contraception and abortion services to women.
The Calvary Hospital acquisition has also been well canvassed in the media. Governments all around the country are always compulsorily acquiring land from landowners for particular uses. It is nothing new! It is a complex area of law. There are legal experts all around the country, including in Canberra who make their money specialising in compulsory land acquisition. Do a Google search!
The ACT government compulsorily acquired land on Northbourne Avenue for the tram and the owners were well compensated.

HiddenDragon9:21 pm 04 Jun 23

Even for those of us who have little or no interest in the religious and related issues raised by this episode, there is much more to it than the “just terms” and other matters which will be dealt with by what seems now like an inevitable court case or cases.

In a somewhat more competently run jurisdiction, where there was a much clearer focus on the public interest, rather than partisan and sectional interest, and where there was not what looks like an almost irresistible instinct to weaponise every issue for political advantage, the managerialist arguments being advanced for the Calvary takeover would be more credible and persuasive.

But here, in the ACT, we have a government with a record of service delivery which is patchy, at best, whether it’s with functions inherited from the Commonwealth at the time of self government, or functions established essentially from scratch, such as the chronically problematic corrections facility. So much of this seems ultimately to stem from the sad reality that the ACT government is still a shallow, immature, incestuous little operation which lives in an echo chamber of progressive righteousness and paranoia – a sad reality illustrated by the proceedings thus far of the Board of Inquiry into the handling of the Lehrmann case.

With these thoughts in mind, I was struck by a claim made by Christopher Prowse in a recent opinion piece in the Canberra Times – “……during the truncated negotiations with the government, Calvary demonstrated how they could build the new northside hospital for less than half the price the government has cited.”


Along, I imagine, with many other long-suffering Canberra ratepayers, I would like to hear more about this and less about the religious and ideological aspects of this episode.

While I see merit in a lot of what you say, I have my doubts about the veracity of what Calvary say they could do in the article, by Christopher Prowse, you quoted:
“”… Calvary demonstrated how they could build the new northside hospital for less than half the price the government has cited….”

Recent history has shown a plethora of small and large developers/builders who have declared bankruptcy prior to completion of the project, generally due to fixed price contracts which do not cover increased building costs.

Martin Keast2:46 pm 03 Jun 23

Genevieve, you have made a nice attempt to gloss over the fact that the ACT Government is essentially coercing the wonders to Calvary Hospital to sell. This is government overreach on a massive scale and it is clear that an ideology agenda is behind it – abortion is an ongoing shame and Calvary stood as an example of a medical service which puts life first.
I am getting quite tired of media organisations acting as propaganda arms for our left-wing rulers. We want real journalism that looks at both sides of the issues rather than just trumpets the approved narrative.

@Martin Keast
We live in a secular democracy, and as such, you are free to have your opinion on abortion but you are not free to impose your view on others. Similarly Calvary is free to provide services according to Catholic dogma – but it should stop taking money from the ACT Government.

Well said @JustSaying !

Martin Keast9:29 pm 04 Jun 23

@justsaying – people who disagree with abortion are taxpayers too. Why should an institution like a hospital stop taking government money because it aligns with a minority position? Seems like typical ‘woke’ greediness and trying to starve out anyone who disagrees with you.

@Martin Keast
If you want to argue the way the ACT Government has set about taking over Cavalry Hospital then your argument about it taking public money might make a modicum of sense. However, you seem to want to enforce your religious dogma, which belongs inside a church not a hospital, on others.
As I said, Australia is a secular democracy – which means governments are not constrained by religious or spiritual maxims in determining the laws they enact. The religious right has had its day and lost – abortion is legal in every jurisdiction in Australia and every woman in Australia has the right to control her own body. Note that I said abortion is legal, I didn’t say it was compulsory.
So you have every right to disagree with abortion – you have no right to make that decision for others. If you don’t like the abortion laws then get them changed, until then the majority elector position (as opposed to the majority religious position) is in favour of the current legislation.
The ACT Government offers a wide range of health and medical services to ACT citizens – including procedures relating to reproductive services (such as D & C, as mentioned in the article). Calvary Hospital is funded by the ACT Government to deliver those health and medical services on its (ACT Goverment’s) behalf. If Calvary doesn’t want to do the job the ACT Government has contracted it to do, it should withdraw from the contract – i.e. forego the funding.
And as for “… people who disagree with abortion are taxpayers too …”. So what? There are any number of ACT taxpayers who don’t like how their taxes are being spent (I refer you to the ‘discussion’ on light rail), however, the place for making change is at the ballot box not in the pulpit.

May 2008 Auditor-Gerneral thinks public money might be subsidising Private patients….April 2009 Little Company of Mary(LCM) keen on selling at $77 million….October 2009 George Pell opposes sale claiming ‘anti-christian’ motive….November 2009…LCM survey ACT residents and 64% in favour of sale…..February 2010 LCM told Vatican would take several years to approve…March 2010..sale back on ACTGOV own buildings LCM runs it….August 2010 sale offer withdrawn as ACTGOV advised buildings are assets….September 2014 Calvary CEO and CFO resign a week apart…March 2016 Private Hospital build….April 2016..Calvary CFO convicted for cooking the books….2016…$20 million Car Park funded by ACTGOV….September 2017 Private Hospital opens with maternity services but alied services provided by public hospital….July 2018 $2.6 million maternity refurb paid by ACTGOV……March 2019 Calvary Private Maternity shut down

Finagen_Freeman11:00 am 02 Jun 23

Ah, sensibility and reason returns. As a health worker, thank you for clarifying what many had assumed were differences between Calvary and Canberra public hospitals.

No difference.

There are huge differences!

Genevieve, thank you for attempting to remind people of what the key reason is behind the government’s actions.
That said, it will be interesting to hear whether contractual conditions were actually breached or not, noting that services provided is the Northside hospital are not consistent with the Southside hospital, and given the claim that substantial funding has been input by the government to help maintain the facility.

Well written. I’m sick of the “abortion issue” sidetracking the discussion. This is about the best way to provide medical care on the north side of the lake. Calvary is too small, and has too few types of specialists, to serve the needs of the growing population in Belconnen and Gungahlin; plus some of the existing buildings need major overhauls. This comes down to how best to address this and whether or not the government should be investing in a property it does not own.

It is also not about people’s right to choose a hospital that is governed by religious considerations. Calvary Private (both at Bruce & John James) will still be owned by the church and people will still have that option. Religious freedom will continue.

Has anybody established the cause of the fire in December last year at Calvary? Can we know for certain that it had absolutely nothing to do with the wiring for digital health records?

If ACT government is liable or at fault any aspect of this fire, it makes sense that they would want to sweep in quickly and take over the whole premises.

During that fire, patients were evacuated mid operation, even with the wounds still open. Patients were wheeled across the road unconscious and in mid-operation over to the private hospital. Their operation wounds packed full of saline and floors and had not even been stitched up.

If the ACT government caused this, they certainly would not want it public. It makes sense that they would want full control over the entire building and organisation.

One little lie leads to a larger and larger one. They’re digging a bigger and bigger hole for themselves.

If none of this is true, that is yet to be determined as it hasn’t been investigated or reported on properly.

It started in a piece of equipment. The problem was exacerbated when smoke spread further than it should have because of the building design – a fault going back decades.

R, how do you see that the ACT government could ever have been responsible for that fire, given that this hospital is run and resourced (other than $$s) by Calvary? That’s just a sad attempt to generate unfounded conspiracy theory to discredit the government generally.
OK, move on people. Nothing to see here.

And thanks for addressing the question, Megsy.

Bob the impala12:43 pm 02 Jun 23

It has yet to be investigated or reported on properly whether the fire was started when a bishop attempted to burn at the stake an heretical bunny rabbit.

If the Catholic Church caused this, they certainly would not want it public. It makes sense that they would want full control over the entire building and organisation.

Although apparently the bunny tasted quite good.

Capital Retro1:26 pm 02 Jun 23

Maybe they were using renewable electricity that wasn’t compatible with the autoclave?

RG…..a walk-in clinic will be sufficient to get that tin foil hat removed.

Despite your best efforts at implying some sort of conspiracy theory R Green the fire occurred in a private hospital which is operated independently from government. The public simply funds it’s operations!

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